On Masculinities

Curator Alona Pardo introduces the group exhibition at the Gropius Bau

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography explores across six thematic sections how masculinity has been coded, performed and socially constructed through photography and film from the 1960s to the present day.

What we have thought of as ‘masculine’ has changed considerably during different historical periods and within different cultures. In the twenty-first century, it seems more apt to reflect on ‘masculinities’ in the plural to underscore the many ways in which one can be a man or indeed become one.

With ideas around masculinity under increasing scrutiny and terms such as ‘toxic’ and ‘fragile’ masculinity filling endless column inches, an investigation of this expansive subject is particularly timely given the current global socio-political climate, which has seen the rise of a ‘masculinist nationalism’ characterised by male world leaders shaping their image as ‘strong’ men, set against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement.

Touching on themes of queer identity, the Black body, power and patriarchy, the perception of men by women, heteronormative stereotypes, hegemonic masculinity and the family, the works in the show present masculinity as an unfixed performative identity shaped by cultural and social forces. Over the last five decades, artists have consistently sought to disrupt and disturb the narrow definitions of gender that determine social structures in order to encourage new ways of thinking about identity, gender and sexuality.

Thomas Dworzak, Taliban portrait. Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2002
© Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Sam Contis, Untitled (Neck), 2015

Sam Contis, Untitled (Neck), 2015
© Sam Contis, Courtesy: the artist and Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery, New York

Soldiers, cowboys, athletes as well as body builders and wrestlers are all rendered subversive through the razor-sharp gaze of the artists presented in the first chapter ‘Disrupting the Archetype’. The military looms large in Thomas Dworzak’s found photographs of Taliban fighters that directly contradict their uber-masculine public image while Collier Schorr and Sam Contis tackle the enduring archetype of American masculinity that is the contemporary cowboy.

‘Male Order’ invites the viewer to reflect on the construction of male power, gender and class. The relationship between dominant masculinity and political leadership is explored through Richard Avedon’s ambitious project The Family (1976) for which he photographed key politicians, lawmakers and captains of industry who clasped the reins of economic and cultural power in their grasp. Inviting the viewer to reflect on the position of patriarchy, both Karen Knorr’s sardonic series Gentlemen (1981-83) and Clare Strand’s playfully subversive work Men Only Tower (2017) reflect on how women and other marginalised identities have been excluded from the corridors of power.

Masahisa Fukase, Upper row, from left to right: A, a model; Toshiteru, Sukezo, Masahisa. Middle row, from left to right: Akiko, Mitsue, Hisashi Daikoji. Bottom row, from left to right: Gaku, Kyoko, Kanako, and a memorial portrait of Miyako, 1985

Masahisa Fukase, Upper row, from left to right: A, a model; Toshiteru, Sukezo, Masahisa. Middle row, from left to right: Akiko, Mitsue, Hisashi Daikoji. Bottom row, from left to right: Gaku, Kyoko, Kanako, and a memorial portrait of Miyako, 1985
From the series Family, 1971–90
© Masahisa Fukase Archives

Since its invention photography has been a powerful vehicle in the construction and documentation of family narratives. In contrast to the conventions of the traditional family portrait, the artists in ‘Too Close to Home: Family and Fatherhood’ deliberately set out to record the ‘messiness’ of life, reflecting on misogyny, violence, sexuality, mortality, intimacy and unfolding family dramas. The Japanese artist Masahisa Fukase’s works are a tender and poignant study of his father through both life and death and serve as a meditation on the loss of masculinity in old age.

In defiance of the prejudice and legal constraints against homosexuality in Europe, the United States and beyond over the last century, the works presented in ‘Queering Masculinity’ highlight how artists from the 1960s onwards have forged a new politically charged queer aesthetic. For artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, George Dureau, David Wojnarowicz and Sunil Gupta, who came to artistic prominence in the decade following the Stonewall Riots in 1969, their intention was not only to problematise the heterosexual gender binary discourse and shatter oppressive homosexual stereotypes but to revel in their queerness as a natural state of being and consequently affirm their rights.

Giving visual form to the complexity of the black male experience, ‘Reclaiming the Black Body’ foregrounds artists who have consciously subverted expectations of race, gender and the white gaze by reclaiming the power to fashion their own identities. Rooted in social, cultural and economic oppression and repression, the representation of black masculinity in the US is born out of a violent history of slavery and prejudice. Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008 by Hank Willis Thomas draws attention to the ways in which corporate America has commodified the African American male experience while simultaneously perpetuating and reinforcing cultural and racial stereotypes.
As the second-wave feminist movement gained momentum through the 1960s and ’70s, female activists sought to expose and critique entrenched ideas about masculinity and to articulate alternative perspectives on gender and representation. Against this background, or motivated by its legacy, the artists gathered here have made men their subject with the radical intention of subverting their power, calling into question the notion that men are active and women passive. Laurie Anderson’s incisive series Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) from 1973 exposes the casual sexism women encountered daily in 1970s New York, while Marianne Wex’s prescient encyclopaedic work Let’s Take Back Our Space (1977), calls out manspreading long before the term was invented.

Alona Pardo
Curator of the exhibition

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Untitled, ca. 1985

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Untitled, c. 1985
© Rotimi Fani-Kayode, courtesy: Autograph, London